A glamorous and seductive style that was exquisitely in tune with the 'moderne' world

March 21, 2003

Art deco infused fantasy and vitality into everything from music, fashion and product design to decorative arts, Hollywood films and city skylines across the globe. Ghislaine Wood reports.

Art deco is arguably the most popular style of the past century. Its success rests perhaps on the fact that it has come to mean many things to many people. It is the style of the flapper girl and the factory, the luxury ocean liner and the skyscraper, the fantasy world of Hollywood and the real world of the Harlem renaissance. It is a style that affected all forms of practice, from the fine and decorative arts to fashion, film and product design, and it reached beyond these to encompass literature, music and dance. Perhaps most fascinating, art deco was also the first style to spread around the world, changing the lives of people everywhere.

Remarkably, there has never been an exhibition examining the style's global impact. The Victoria and Albert Museum's forthcoming "Art deco 1910-1939" will be the first to explore it as a worldwide phenomenon that transformed city skylines from New York to Shanghai, sheathed offices and factories from London to Rio, and shaped the new pleasure palaces - hotels, cocktail bars and cinemas.

Deco emerged in Europe in the years before the first world war, but its development accelerated in the aftermath of the conflict, fuelled, in F.

Scott Fitzgerald's words, by "all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War". Carried on the winds of commerce and capitalism, it spread quickly after 1925, and a dynamic new age of communications ensured its global reach. As the rich travelled the world in luxury on art deco ocean liners such as the Normandie and the Queen Mary , films and magazines transmitted the style to a mass audience.

But nothing had greater importance in art deco's worldwide dominance than the films of Hollywood. In the exuberant musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or films such as Grand Hotel , 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of Broadway , a magical web was woven with tales of luxury, youth and beauty, upward mobility and rampant consumerism. The backdrops for these dreams were fantastic deco-styled hotels, nightclubs, offices, apartments and skyscrapers. They offered a heady cocktail of modern themes and chic style that proved irresistible to millions worldwide. In fact, Hollywood's success was so rapid and far-reaching that by 1932, the League of Nations could report that "only the Bible and the Koran have an indisputably larger circulation than that of the latest film from Los Angeles".

In many parts of the world, art deco stood for modernity and escape from restricting traditions. It offered an accessible image of modern life and progress, more fun than competing forms of design. At the same time, designers could adapt art deco to convey national or local identities and meanings, using native decorative forms and subject matter. The search for a modern national style led designers in many countries to explore native motifs with the aim of asserting their cultural independence. A country's distinct flora and fauna replaced classical ornamentation. In Australia, the goanna or the duck-billed platypus embellished banks and post offices, while in Canada the beaver and the moose were popular. The art of indigenous peoples was also thrown in to the deco mix. From the Marajoara of Brazil and the Pueblo of New Mexico and Arizona to the Maori of New Zealand, native art provided new forms that were both "exotic" and national.

In every country, art deco helped to ease the transition to the modern. In Japan, which saw dramatic transformation in the interwar period, the growth of cities such as Tokyo stimulated the development of a thriving urban culture. Department stores, cinemas and cafes became the new social centres where questions of cultural identity were debated as Japan sought to balance the demands of tradition and modernity, East and West. And it was art deco that was adopted as the style best suited to meet those demands.

The skyline of Shanghai, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Asia, was dominated by art deco buildings by the end of the 1930s. It was not only the wealthy foreign community who embraced the deco lifestyle, but also ordinary Chinese - particularly women. One of the most striking developments in Chinese fashion was that of the " qipao " - the quintessential modern woman's garment. This had evolved over the first few years of the century, but by the 1930s had became figure-hugging, and bright, jazzy geometric deco patterns had replaced more traditional flower patterns. The advent of the modern, sexy qipao signified a new breed of Chinese women - women who wore make-up, permed their hair and smoked cigarettes. It was frequently used in advertising, and its adoption marked the emergence of women into the public sphere, sparking debates about morality, national identity and Chinese modernity.

Bombay saw its seafront developed with a strip of chic art deco apartment buildings. Cinemas, so often the trailblazers of the new style, also sprang up all over the city. But it is perhaps in the home of the princes of India that we see the greatest fusion between East and West. The influence of European design is clear in one of the most elaborate and spectacular pieces of Indian art deco furniture - a silver-covered canopy bed attributed to craftsmen from the state of Udaipur. Commissioned by a maharajah, the bed continues the Indian royal tradition of covering furniture with sumptuous precious metals. Its European shape and ornament, of intersecting circles, fans, vertical and horizontal lines, epitomises the deco aesthetic. It is a piece that brilliantly exemplifies how the style was so quickly adapted to inject new life into jaded national traditions and to create exciting new forms.

It was in America, though, that the style was most spectacularly adopted and naturalised, and nowhere did it have greater impact. Knowledge of the new style spread rapidly as Europeans emigrated to the US and Americans travelled to Europe to see the Paris Exposition of 1925. European models of design seen at the exhibition were quickly superseded as designers strove to "Americanise" deco, adapting it to cheaper materials, machine production and US social habits. The deco skyscrapers of Manhattan quickly became icons of the new style. For one emigre, the Austrian designer Paul T.

Frankl, "the skyscraper was a more vital contribution to the field of modern art than all the things done in Europe put together". Frankl was one of the first to use the skyscraper as a modern American imagery in design.

Many deco works express the spirit of the machine age, but none more so than the Gorham Manufacturing Company's silver "Cubic" coffee service. This spectacularly fuses the imagery of the city and machine with the forms of Cubism. It is known as "The Lights and Shadows of Manhattan" and is one of the great works of American art deco.

The US also witnessed the emergence of a new approach to design in the 1930s, which took root and quickly became identified as a wholly American phenomenon. Streamlining transformed the look of everything, from factories and cinemas to transport, product and fashion design. It was deeply symbolic and highly decorative and aimed to stimulate consumption. Through the use of forms that suggested those of trains, automobiles and ocean liners, streamlining metaphorically represented speed, progress and technology. It created works that were undeniably modern yet highly desirable and lent style and glamour to the most mundane of domestic products. Streamlining, which can be seen as yet another strategy to renew decoration, marks the last phase of art deco's rich story.

It was the most malleable of styles. Without a defining doctrine or manifesto, it fragmented to envelop the modern world at its most dynamic points - skyscrapers, automobiles, jazz and Hollywood film. Everywhere, it came to represent new aspirations and desires. It is a style that has been defined in myriad ways and known by many names, jazz moderne, zig-zag moderne or simply moderne - the term art deco was not coined until the 1960s. The one certainty is that art deco continues to defy attempts to constrain its dream of fantasy, glamour and escape.

Ghislaine Wood is the curator of the art deco exhibition that opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, next week.

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